Wells Eats Crow as It Digests Wachovia

The seemingly contradictory actions by the brass at Wells Fargo & Co. regarding the federal bailout have put the San Francisco company under a microscope.

Wells was notably absent this week from the list of the 10 major banking companies repaying Troubled Asset Relief Program funds. It is still raising more capital and has not announced when it plans to repay its $25 billion of aid.

Granted, seven other banking companies that failed their stress tests are in a similar boat, but their chairmen did not call the tests "asinine," as Richard Kovacevich did in March.

And executives at the $1.3 trillion-asset Wells were among the industry's most outspoken in September in saying that they did not need the aid — though they would accept it for the good of the overall financial system.

Analysts said it could take six months to a year for the company to repay its Tarp money. So far investors are being patient. Wells' stock has steadily climbed since early March (before the a-word was invoked), to nearly rebound to pre-crisis levels.

Two words sum up the reason Wells is not in a hurry to repay the money: Wachovia Corp.

Wells inherited much of the Charlotte company's option adjustable-rate mortgages and other problem assets after buying it in December. Now Wells is preoccupied with working through those issues as it absorbs Wachovia's operations.

The purchase strained Wells' capital ratios and prompted the government's requirement that it raise an additional $13.7 billion of capital. The company has raised about two-thirds of that through a common stock offering.

Many of the other companies ordered to raise additional capital after the stress tests are closer to completion, including Bank of America Corp., PNC Financial Services Group Inc. and SunTrust Banks Inc.

Julia Tunis Bernard, a spokeswoman for Wells, wrote in an e-mail Wednesday that the company is focusing on integrating Wachovia and moving prudently to bolster capital.

"Through de-risking Wachovia's balance sheet, our $8.6 billion capital raise and other internal capital generation, we expect to meet our capital requirements for buffer capital," Bernard wrote. "We will work closely with our regulators to determine the appropriate time to repay the Tarp funds while maintaining strong capital levels."

Analysts said Wells is taking a reasonable approach.

"The Wachovia acquisition did stretch their capital ratios, so the Tarp funds have helped them, and it's also allowed them to meet the credit needs of their customers," said Joe Morford, an analyst at Royal Bank of Canada's RBC Capital Markets.

"So I think it's premature to expect them to repay Tarp capital now," Morford said. "There's still uncertainty in the economy, particularly in the West, and having a little extra capital isn't a bad thing for any bank these days."

According to analysts, much of Wells' future earnings is likely to come from mortgage activity, both refinancings and purchase loans.

For the first quarter, Wells reported $190 billion of mortgage applications and $101 billion of originations, which played a large part in the nearly doubling of its total revenue from a year earlier, to $21 billion.

Frederick Cannon, chief equity strategist at KBW Inc.'s Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., said it could take at least a year for Wells to repay its Tarp money, in part because of economic conditions and in part because of accounting rule changes that require banking companies to put certain off-balance-sheet securitizations back on to their sheets.

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